On the patrol for poachers and prose

March 18, 2007|By CANDUS THOMSON

Bill Armstrong has patrolled the woods and waters for 40 years, protecting wildlife from poachers.

You might think that would make him a little grumpy about his fellow two-legged critters, but somehow it hasn't.

Instead, Armstrong has written a delightful book about the people with whom he crossed paths as a wildlife law enforcement officer with the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources and now as the game and environment officer at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

It is his affinity for the common man that makes When Whip-poor-wills Call ($22; 208 pages; McClain Printing Co.) a fun read. Even a backwoods rascal -- squirrel poacher, by trade -- who ran afoul of the law gets a fair shake from Armstrong.

The book is a fitting cap on a career that will end next year when Armstrong, 63, retires and makes the outdoors his full-time hobby.

Armstrong was born in Baltimore, but moved to West Virginia as a wee lad. He served in the Air Force in the 1960s before the pull of the mountains brought him back to coal country and a job as an office supplies salesman.

While waiting around for an appointment one day in 1967, Armstrong saw a sign for the West Virginia civil service test and took it. Turns out the state was looking for some conservation officers.

A few months later, Armstrong got the keys to a cruiser, a badge, a gun and a law book. For months, he taught himself how to be a fish and game cop.

A veteran officer once told him: "The people here can be your friend or they can be your enemy. It's up to you to decide which one."

He must have done something right because he made a 20-year career of it.

But Armstrong wasn't ready for retirement. Instead, he applied to be an Army Special Agent to watch over 75,000 acres at Aberdeen in Harford County. What was once a two-man operation with a 14-foot jon boat and a vehicle or two is now a force of 11 with "four boats, night-vision goggles, electronic gear and satellites. It boggles the mind."

Water defines the mission. The base is split by the Bush River, bordered on the south by the Gunpowder River, and its northernmost point is where the Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay meet.

That has put Armstrong up against some of the state's most nortorious fish poachers, who run between state and federal waters for cover.

He is fiercely protective of critters, especially bald eagles, and justifiably proud of their comeback. During a recent aerial survey, Armstrong counted 29 active nests.

"We have an amazing abundance of wildlife at Aberdeen, some of the most pristine woodlands and marshes in the state. That's the place I call work," he says.

About two years ago, Armstrong decided to write down some of his stories. Writing, he says, came naturally. His father, the late George Armstrong, was a newspaperman in West Virginia.

Although eagles are at the heart of his work now, the whippoorwills, with their distinctive call, are the soundtrack for the chapters in his book.

He's heartened by the early response -- especially back in West Virginia.

"If the book does well, I'll write some more," he says. "If it doesn't do well, I'll write some more."

The book is available at amazon.com or at www.whenwhippoorwillscall.com.

Hot foot

Attention, dootbrain who shopped at Bass Pro Shops several weeks back. You know who you are. The one with the "Superfeet" heated foot inserts. One in size 7-8 and one in size 10-11.

I am the owner of the matching set. One in size 7-8 and one in size 10-11. I guess that makes us sole mates.

It is hard to believe you have two feet so grossly different that you had to open one box and swap one insole.

No, I have to think that you opened two boxes, fiddled around with the insoles (what's so hard to comprehend about inert objects that sit in the bottom of your shoes, Einstein?) and then put the wrong foot bed into the wrong box.

Brilliant.

My only comfort is knowing that you can no more use your "Superfeet" than I can use mine. You made your foot bed, now step on it.

Tag lines

The spring trout stocking schedule is up on the Department of Natural Resources Web site. Hat's off to Bob Lunsford and the trout crew for battling late ice conditions and an outbreak of whirling disease at the hatcheries. "Opening day" of trout season is March 31.

By mid-week, recreational anglers will learn what this year's spring trophy rockfish season will look like.

State fisheries officials will take part in a conference call Tuesday with Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission biologists to set the size limits for the month-long season that begins April 21.

Maryland is asking for a daily creel of the widest possible slot (28-37 inches) or a "superfish" of 42 inches and up -- the option preferred by the three advisory boards. But that leaves little wiggle room if the state is to avoid a third season of overfishing. ASMFC might insist on a more conservative season that includes a 28-inch to 36-inch slot or a superfish of 43 inches and up.

Free fishing days will be the first two Saturdays in June and July 4. Mark them on your calendar, gang. It's a great time to recruit a new fishing buddy.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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